A flower with many faces
The immortal Linnaeus, who came up with a universal botanical language to name and classify all plants, must have greatly admired the coneflowers, for in 1753 he named the genus in honor of his benefactor Olaus Rudbeck, a professor of botany at Uppsala University in Sweden, who took him in as an impoverished student, found him a tutoring job and guided his career.Rudbeckia, or coneflower, is a wonderful genus of about 25 or 30 showy North American wildflowers distinguished by prominent green to black “eyes,” yellow to red-brown daisy-like petals and alternate leaves that range from prickly, hairy to smooth. Most are coarse and robust plants. They’re all part of the Asteraceae, the enormous sunflower, or composite, family of flowering plants.
Goldsturm means “golden storm” in German, and Rudbeckia fulgida, “Goldsturm,” really does produce a blizzard or shower of golden daisies, at least in other people’s gardens. It is the most popular of all the coneflowers called black-eyed Susans, and possibly of all perennials; it is also one of the most photogenic, and it graces the covers and color plates of innumerable garden books. Mine never grow into the huge mounds of flowers my mother has and that I see in front gardens up and down the valley. Neither does Rudbeckia triloba, sometimes called brown-eyed Susan, an Eastern U.S. native popular in the West, with smaller, more profuse yellow flowers but proportionately larger cones than R. fulgida. I get one or two thin, upright stalks with a tidy framework of branches, full of flowers, but never anything like what I see in pictures. I may have taken cultural directions too literally; my soil is probably not rich and moist enough: Drought tolerance means something different in North Carolina than in Colorado. I’m told R. triloba (three-lobed leaf) self-sows copiously, but I have never found a single seedling. I keep trying, though. I have much better luck with Rudbeckia hirta, a variable prairie species, which became the state flower of Maryland In 1918. The hybrids, especially the “rustic colors” Gloriosa strain, from which I grew my original plants came, do self-seed gently around my garden. I watch carefully for the slightly hairy seedlings when I clean up the garden in spring. Sometimes they overwinter, sometimes not. While the native is has bright golden daisies, my garden species, like my naturally hybridizing columbines, surprises me with endless color combinations of blended yellows, oranges and browns. No two are exactly alike; the variations sometimes produce beautifully subtle harmonies with its companions and spice up the late summer perennials.
A bonus packet of an all-America selection, “Cherokee Sunset” was hyped as an easy-to-grow annual of mixed double and semi-double blooms in rich autumnal shades. My seedlings didn’t amount to much; I wasn’t expecting them to because even my volunteers are hard to transplant, but a few had flowers the next year and three years later there are several nice clumps in unusual mahogany-bronze shades which make pleasing accents among the hot-colored late summer perennials. I like them so much, I may have to try some of the many other varieties available from seed, including doubles that look like brown-eyed zinnias to me. I may even reconsider my aversion to green flowers and try one of the green-eyed selections, like “Irish Eyes” or “Prairie Sun.”I’m stingy about cutting bouquets, but when a brassy orange lily pokes through a delicate pink peony, it ends up in a vase. So when a Rudbeckia hirta volunteer grew strongly in a bed composted and thoroughly dug over to receive royalty in the form of a somewhat rare tree peony, instead of consigning it to the compost pile, I made it my designated cutting coneflower. The first round of blooms went into a big pot-bellied vase a month ago, and I’ll have to throw that lot out soon to make way for a fresh cutting! The vase has a green glaze the same color as the leaves and shows off the big golden daisies brushed with russet around their black eyes. As the pollen develops, the cones look sprinkled with gold dust.
We know who Rudbeck was, but who was black-eyed Susan? Who named her? Why not black-eyed Mary? When I look at them in the garden, their sunny faces held up to the sky and their rich dark central boss like snapping black eyes, I imagine a tempestuous beauty like the heroine of Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”Anna gardens with her husband, Gerry, in Basalt. She enjoys watching butterflies and bumblebees visiting her rudbeckias. You can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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